- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 4, 2002

Jacob Lawrence's bright silk-screen print "The Builders" greets visitors to "Windows on Work: Building America From the Collections of the Washington Print Club" at the National Building Museum. "Builders," done in 1974, shows two black parents walking with their children. Mr. Lawrence used the silk-screen medium with big, flat patterns and brilliant hues to portray the family's happiness. It powerfully projects the optimism of the exhibition.
The artists, though largely products of the Depression and the Work Projects Administration (WPA), show a nation building and rebuilding itself in cities and on farms. Images of steel mills, jackhammers, bridges and skyscrapers energetically express America at work.
Louis Lozowick created "Blast Furnaces" (1929) and "Subway Construction" (1931). Thomas Hart Benton shows railroad building through America's farmland in "Ten Pound Hammer" (1952). He depicts workers precisely hitting spikes into the rail ties, with a smoking train engine behind them. We also see Joseph Pennell's "Foundations, Building a Skyscraper" (1910) and Martin Lewis' "Derricks at Night" (1927).
The museum collaborated with the Washington Print Club in bringing together this strong and unusual show of 67 works, organized by the museum's chief curator, Howard Decker. The club's more than 350 members include print collectors, curators, printmakers, dealers and educators.
Mr. Decker chose artists with a point of view. Rockwell Kent's take on work is unmistakable in his "Workers of the World Unite" (1937). The small wood engraving seems to shout its message. James E. Allen shows a worker nonchalantly arriving for work on a suspended girder in "Spiderboy" (1937). Raphael Soyer sympathetically depicts a gentle dressmaker in his softly colored lithograph "The Seamstress II" (1979). Riva Helfond also dramatically shows the plight of the poor in "Anthracite" (1936). An abstracted curve of miners in hard hats and their hungry wives encloses a coal miner working a vein.
Mr. Decker arranged the prints in the exhibit by the time of day they represent. Mr. Lawrence's "Builders" starts off the morning section. Next, in "Fuel" (1936), Ronald Slayton shows trucks coming into the city in the early morning to deliver badly needed wood. The artist gashed rough cuts into wood for his forceful woodcut.
A brighter print is by contemporary artist Jennifer Bartlett. It pictures the outline of a house with a triangular roof and rectangular base. The artist called the print "House: Dots, Hatches," an appropriate title because brilliant slashes of color swirl around the house. Miss Bartlett reminds the viewer that the ownership of many homes was threatened during the 1920s and 1930s.
Pennell is one of the earlier and most popular printmakers in the show, with his romanticized views of New York City and the work ethic. "St. Paul's New York" (1915) shows the church huddled among tall buildings. It's a calmer view of the now-famous church that played such an important role in September 11 events.
He also composed a dramatic view through a factory door, "The Gunpit #1" (1917), which shows huge guns being made for World War I ships. Another Pennell testimony to America's growth is his "Foundations" lithograph.
The midday section of the show includes Philip Reisman's witty scenes of servers in "The Restaurant" (1928) and the late Washington artist Jacob Kainen's "Plasterer" (1936). Mr. Reisman contrasts his servers in an elegant restaurant to muscular laborers in a three-part etching. Mr. Kainen, who lived through the Depression and its aftermath in New York before becoming a major artist in Washington, shows a plasterer carefully doing his work. Collectors Ken and Kiyo Hitch contributed the woodcut, and it's a treat to see Mr. Kainen's rarely displayed early work.
Mr. Lozowick focused on construction in the 1930s, and the curator included seven of his prints. "With the softness of the lithography medium, and strong geometry of the compositions, his work just rose to the surface," Mr. Decker says. He placed several of the prints close together to have them play off one another.
The curator features darker images in his afternoon and nighttime section. Mr. Lewis depicts men and women wearily leaving a factory in "Day's End" (1937). Harry Sternberg, famous for his images of workers, etched "Roundhouse #2" (1929), in which trains are pulled into a rest area.
Michael Dershowitz, a major Washington print collector, lent the etching. Mr. Dershowitz comes from a working-class family in New York. His father commuted three hours a day to the Sabrett hot-dog factory in Jersey City, N.J. After law school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Mr. Dershowitz came to Washington to practice law and collect prints that showed the world of working-class men such as his father in New York. Many of the prints he collects, such as the one by Sternberg, remind him of his childhood.
Another collector is Gerry Elliott, who lent the Jennifer Bartlett print to the show. A fellow print club member describes him as "a collector who lives for prints."
Mr. Elliott says he buys from all kinds of sources. "I purchased the print from the Smithsonian Resident Associates, who offer very good prints at reasonable prices," he says.
The collector says he likes the work for its visual impact. He believes it "jumps out at me with its color and lively, pointillist strokes."
"Windows on Work" presents a variety of intriguing prints that challenge the mind and stimulate the eye. Through first-rate prints, the exhibit illustrates an interesting idea, one that ties into the Building Museum's mission.
The print club and museum, however, should do more to explain the period, present interesting anecdotes about the artists and their approach to their subjects and spell out the qualities of the various print media. This would make the prints and printmakers come alive in ways they deserve.

WHAT: "Windows on Work: Building America From the Collections of the Washington Print Club"
WHERE: National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 11
TICKETS: Free
PHONE: 202/272-2448

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